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The other global divide

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What if London is drawing closer to New York and Dubai, but further away from Gloucestershire? Or still more specifically: the stylish bits of London closer to fashionable Manhattan, but further from Hackney and Brixton?

Peter Hill
6 March 2013

How to start a discussion of large-scale and more local forms of contemporary consciousness? I'm going to turn back to the old-style ruling class in Britain, in the age of Empire. One of the characteristics of this class was that it was British, national, in a way that excluded more local ties. Raymond Williams, in his study of George Orwell (Orwell, London: Fontana, 1971), expressed this well: this class felt that it belonged to an “England” that took in Oxford, Cambridge, Eton, central London, selected country estates – and of course many centres of imperial rule, beyond England. Places in between were excluded, ignored or looked down on as “provincial” or “suburban”. The ruling-class “England” was a controlling network laid down over the surface of the land, and defined not only by its privilege, but also by its separation from what was, in fact, the rest of England – as well as the other countries of the Empire. Except that from within that network it was impossible to see it that way. As far as these people were concerned, they were “in the most central ways, English”.

My point is that the privilege and the disconnection were linked. The loyalties of this class were displaced, as Williams explains, from the actual communities local to this network, based on privilege and exclusion. For them, “England” or “Britain” was Oxford, Cambridge, London institutions, country houses, imperial centres; or it was the symbols of rule: the flag, the army, the monarchy. For this reason there is a tangible difference between a bourgeoisie with more specific local ties and one of this ‘displaced-national’ variety. The institutions built up by paternalistic Victorians in so many provincial towns are a testament to a provincial civic pride, generations of wealthy families tied to their home towns in a rather different way. This kind of thing came to look rather quaint and irrelevant to those who belonged to a wider national and imperial tradition.

Today things are moving up a level, and we are dealing, in many ways, with an already global reality. The “national” level, which once looked spacious and indeed privileged compared to the "local" and "provincial", can now look cramped and provincial itself. Today, both privilege and disconnection are being transferred from a national to a world scale. The institutions of capital - if not yet of government - are global, and a global ruling class is growing up to serve them. Their training is less through "national" institutions than through the international schools and worldwide networks of private schools. From there, they enter the elite business schools: Harvard, or the Said Business School in Oxford, for example. Such a class is rather different from the old national bourgeoisies. Increasingly it simply does not have, or want, or need, particular national (much less provincial or local) ties. It does not draw, as the old British ruling class did, on a national mystique of "England" or of Empire. It is a "purer" ruling class, in a sense, than the older ones: a class with no nation. If it has a rationale, it is privilege itself.  

And this is the paradox we must confront when talking, on the left, of “world citizenship”. For the members of this emerging ruling class are in fact, for practical purposes, citizens of the world, members of a global political and (more crucially) economic nation. The rest of us are left as merely inhabitants of particular places and countries. Just as the ruling class of Victorian Britain was national, and those who did not belong to its world provincial, local, rustic. They can move around freely, be in New York one day and Dubai the next. They have their own network of ruling centres laid down across the globe, from which, once again, so many places and people in between are excluded. And once again, they do not notice this: they fly easily over these unimportant provinces, on the way to the next place that matters. 

A global left 

So much the more reason, some would say, to work for genuinely global citizenship for all: to end that confinement of people to mere local and national levels and give them access to a universal world. Thinking in world terms is of course a part of a broad range of traditions on the left. There are the social democrats who are beginning to think globally: a left-wing alternative to the Bretton Woods institutions, as Owen Worth calls for in this series. On their radical wing is someone like Tony Benn, who I heard once (at Wolfson College, Oxford) call for a “world state”: an obvious response to a globalized world, from within that statist tradition. Further to the left are those socialists who think primarily in international terms; and anarchists long used to disregarding the boundaries of any national state. We should add environmentalists and those working on climate change, who think, inevitably, in global terms. This is quite a spectrum, but all have this in common: they think, or aim to think, globally and in some sense universally. 

And many of their emphases are very necessary ones. Firstly for practical reasons: capital now operates on a global level, and so must we. Like it or not, efforts which remain limited to national, regional or local levels are doomed to failure. When we see the power of the IMF or even credit ratings agencies over national governments, or the ability of multi-national corporations to simply move from one state to another, it is hard to argue with this. Moreover, there are certain problems – problems of climate change and the world environment, for instance – which must be settled on a global level, can hardly be settled otherwise. Again, there are valuable emphases within many of the campaigns against border restrictions, for the rights of migrants and displaced persons of all kinds. There is the important question of global justice: equality between countries. There are important cultural questions, of communication and understanding across national boundaries. 

There are, in other words, genuinely compelling reasons for the move which many on the left seem to be making, from the local or national level to that of the whole globe. Remaining fixated on these smaller units – the city, the neighbourhood, the nation – can seem self-defeating, or merely evasive, a closing of our eyes to a larger reality. For these units are clearly being controlled from outside, by forces operating on a level far beyond them. Their very separation, nation from nation, culture from culture, can seem to obscure this common fate, their common subjection to these forces – so that bridging these gaps, opening people's eyes to a shared reality, comes to seem the true project of the left.

Yet when we get to this point, and these grand universal projects – world institutions, global citizenship and the like – are being presented as if they are the solution, I begin to have doubts. Doubts of a parochial kind, perhaps: the sceptical suspicion of the boy from the provinces, when presented with the latest newfangled invention from the big city. I certainly cannot bring myself to see it as the only project of the left, any more than I can shake off my feeling that these distances between nations are not the only distances we have to cross – indeed that they may not be, in the end, the most important ones. There are still massive divisions within countries; and in jumping so quickly to this universal level we can overlook them. Indeed, I cannot help feeling that in some ways this rush to operate on a world level on the part of the left actually widens the divide I referred to above. The divide, that is, between those who can feel themselves to be citizens of the world, and those who are necessarily, at least for the present, inhabitants of one particular place.

When we move up onto that global level too quickly, that is, we risk leaving a vast number of people behind. We find ourselves operating from within that exclusive ruling-class network, rather than going beyond it. We too fly with an easy arrogance from capital to capital, from centre to controlling centre, with hardly a glance for the "provincial" boroughs, the "obscure" parishes over which we pass. For the “global radical” consciousness has in fact many points in common with the outlook of the global ruling class. It too is not tied to a particular place, possessed often by mobile people who will find it easy to move on: people privileged and also separated from the more localized and place-bound communities around them.

Stuck in our ways 

But we must examine those who belong to these communities a little more. For people who have found themselves “stuck”, confined to a more restricted scope, have on occasion come up with political projects of their own. There are, notably, the other traditions of the left alongside the universal discourses of global liberation. In Britain, say, the countless local friendly societies, cooperatives and unions which grew up, certainly as part of a wider national movement, but also and crucially in response to particular and local needs: this town, this neighbourhood, this village. And this was not in fact a mere “limitation”, because it indicated a detailed attention to a particular place, a particular group of people, and a refusal, at times, to subject them to the domination of a confident universal discourse.

This seems to me in many ways the real divide that the left has always had to work across, as other kinds of national and popular movement have had to work across it. The division between the local, small-scale, parochial consciousness of so many of the actual people these movements claim to speak for, and the wider, national or even global reach of those elites which so often dominated the movement as a whole. Of course one way, the elite way of seeing this relationship, has been in terms of an evolution. In this version, the job of the left or the reforming national movement was to wean the people away from their particularistic local ties, their primitive hankering for blood and soil, and coax them into new and universal identities: citizens of a nation or of the world, members of a global working class.

But again I am not convinced, especially since so many movements now exist which explicitly refuse these global and international forms of identity, which pride themselves on their own kinds of particularism. In England, the kind of Eurosceptic national feeling that Tom Nairn analyzed in “Fate of the First Born?”; rural movements such as the Countryside Alliance; or the local consciousness of the North-East that Alex Niven deals with in his book Folk Opposition. In other places, regional and national identities, or religious movements, all trying to find some kind of local authenticity.

Those used to universal discourses on a world scale have often reacted very strongly against movements of this kind. One thinks of the late Eric Hobsbawm's anathema, in Age of Extremes, on fundamentalist and nativist movements with “nothing of relevance to say” about the contemporary world. Certainly one can grow frustrated at the wilful blindness of such movements, their refusal to see the powerful dominating forces which genuinely do operate on a world level, and their related vulnerability to mystification of a right-wing kind. When, in England say, they rage against bureaucracy and the nanny state controlling people's lives, but not against a corporate capitalism that is equally controlling; or when they attack European encroachment on British sovereignty, but not Britain's slavish subjection to US foreign policy, it is easy to be discouraged. When such movements take a turn to the really vicious – to chauvinistic nationalism, to racist or religious bigotry – one is tempted to write the phenomenon off entirely, as not just misguided but positively and wholly dangerous. These movements really seem to have “nothing of relevance to say”.

But there is, after all, a different way of seeing the issue. For surely the point is precisely that they do have, or appear to have, something of relevance to say to all those people who find them convincing; whereas movements and discourses of the universal and global kind often seem remote and unhelpful. Indeed, one can put the problem the other way around: it is the universalist traditions of the left which have ended up, in the eyes of so many people, with nothing of relevance to say. And it is this problem which the rush to operate on a global level, admirable in other ways, seems to me to ignore. It is complacent about its own universality. It forgets that feeling which leads people to reject the fashionable products of the dominant centres of civilization in favour of crude home-made ideologies of their own devising: the feeling which says, “a poor thing, indeed, but mine own”. For these movements do have a power to speak to specific societies, particular local circumstances. In their vicious forms they are the product of crises in these societies, cries of pain and anger as the old identities dissolve, rather than any kind of a solution. But what they do have, and what in their more positive forms they can contribute, is an attention to actual communities which a universalist discourse often seems to disregard.

As Alex Niven and others have argued, we are in great danger at present of a separation of the valuable elements of these two traditions: of the left going entirely one way, onto a universal, global and elite level, while the local and populist movements go the other way, into bitter rejection and insularity. There are dangers, importantly, on both sides. The dangers of narrow-minded populism we hardly need reminding of; the opposite danger is perhaps less obvious, but no less real. For when the project of the global left reaches a certain point of abstraction it is hard to see what really separates it from that of the global ruling class: both seeing the big picture and only the big picture, both applying their solutions dispassionately, from above. A weightless “global” discourse without grounding in specific societies will end up, in practice, excluding more people than the national or civic identities it rejects.

The other divide

It is said that the world is shrinking, but on reflection I am not so sure. Perhaps the networks of the elites are drawing closer together – a certain privileged world is indeed shrinking – but the rifts between that world and everywhere else may actually be growing wider. What if London is drawing closer to New York and Dubai, but further away from Gloucestershire? Or still more specifically: the stylish bits of London closer to fashionable Manhattan, but further from Hackney and Brixton? This is the emerging reality of the new global ruling class: familiar with a certain restricted set of elite areas spread all across the world, but rarely venturing beyond them. But because one can fly from Toronto to Tokyo at will, one forgets that one might find a far less familiar environment just a little further down the street. The net of privilege draws ever tighter, and those caught within it – including the radicals, the leftists – fail to see just how narrow and exclusive it has become. Their world, which aspires to be “the world”, a global consciousness, is in fact narrow and limited too.

On its own – unless it is accompanied by a real effort to reach out beyond those narrow circles – I think that this is what the emphasis on “global citizenship” will tend towards. A drawing closer of what remain basically elite leftist circles around the globe, on the pattern of the drawing-together of the global ruling class. And the widening of the divide between that world and those left outside it, still working on more local levels, thinking and living – and in many ways rightly so – in more local ways. The distances between nations are important, and we need to keep working across them; but it is also, and perhaps more crucially, across this other divide that we need to reconnect.

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